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Overcoming the Post-Christmas Break Slump

On Rabbit Trails, Star Wars, and the Common Topics of Invention

Classes have begun again, following Christmas break, and it was a difficult beginning. My students all returned, most having seen (typically two or three times) the recent Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Imagine my surprise when math class was distracted by conversations about Rey’s parentage, when science class was distracted by conversations about the Star Killer Base, when Latin class was distracted by conversations ranking the various Star Wars films according to their quality as movies.

To be fair, I wasn’t trying to prevent the distractions. It was as difficult to return to class for me as it was for my students. I too wanted to race down various rabbit trails into a galaxy far, far away.

When training teachers and tutors, I like to point out the glory that the rabbit trail can be. It is on the rabbit trail that most learning takes place, where the students’ minds are open to what is being said and discussed, not distracted by the humdrum of intellectual labor. Yet, on this day, I didn’t even want to find ways to make those rabbit trails anything other than the amusement (and, yes, I do mean a-muse-ment) that they were.

Alas, I must confess that by the time our lunch break rolled around, I was disappointed with the morning. In the moment, I appreciated the digressions, but I knew that it could have and should have gone differently. I guess what I am saying is that I knew, in that moment, that I wanted to be disciplined. Herein lies the problem. Like everyone else, I want to be disciplined, but I don’t want to become disciplined.

This is when I realized the practical power of the Common Topics of invention in teaching. We learn to ask all manner of questions using the Common Topics. Together they form a discipline that helps us to ask meaningful questions for meaningful studies. It probably wouldn’t have taken much work on my part to simply ask the students to compare something from Star Wars to whatever subject it is we were digressing from.

How difficult would it have been, for example, to ask them about the physics of BB-8 rolling across the desert sands of Jakku or the physics of the Star Killer Base during our science class?

I am not much of an authoritarian in the classroom, but neither do I want to be what Socrates would call an idle man with an idle soul. The Common Topics are an area where I actually am disciplined; I just needed a nudge to remind me to be that disciplined person. That afternoon, the nudge came, and the conversations we had in our history, literature, and theology classes came to life. And, you know something, the “digressions” into Star Wars were no longer digressions; they were the rabbit trails where learning happened.

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